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Philip Glass' Modernist Take On Ancient Egypt Is Now At LA Opera

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Three years after presenting a revival of Philip Glass' modernist classic Einstein on the Beach, LA Opera debuts its own co-production (with the English National Opera) of another, far less known Glass opus, Akhnaten, this weekend. Like Einstein's, the Akhnaten score is grounded in the extended repetition, with slight variations, of pulsing musical motifs. The effect can be mesmerizing and feel spiritually and cerebrally uplifting, but to the uninitiated it can seem stultifying. One grace of this production is that there is such abounding visual stimulation—in the sumptuous sets and costumes, not to mention a chorus full of highly skilled jugglers—that audience members are provided ample additional objects of sensory attention while getting acclimated to the unfamiliar musical experience, which we settled into appreciating by the end of the first act.

With a libretto sung mostly in original ancient languages (not supertitled for some reason), except for one aria in English, the opera tells the story of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten's (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) 17-year reign. After assuming the throne at Thebes, Akhnaten announces his intention to replace the kingdom's traditional polytheistic religious orientation with a monotheistic worship of the sun god Aten, supported by his wife Nefertiti (J'Nai Bridges) and mother Tye (Stacey Tappan). He banishes the old priests from the temples and builds a great new city as a center of the new faith. Eventually, though, the priests and their allies lay siege to Akhnaten's home, killing him and reassuming power under the new pharoah Tutankhamen (known to us today as King Tut).

Costanzo is a formidable presence from beginning to end of this three-act opera, his high soprano voice entrancing and dramatic, not least in a bravura love duet with Bridges' dynamic Nefertiti. Hotshot young conductor Matthew AuCoin, an LA Opera artist in residence, navigates the intricacies of Akhnaten's score. Oh, and all that juggling? Apparently out our earliest recorded instances of this circus act are found in ancient Egypt cemeteries. Timed to punctuate Akhnaten's musical passages, these feats of concentration add a layer of offbeat mystery to an opera production that already stretches our senses.

(At opening night a group of Black History Matters demonstrators very peacefully assembled around the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion entryways, carrying placards attesting that the real historical Akhnaten and those around him were black Africans, while Costanzo and much of the cast are white. A statement by LA Opera inserted into the production playbills affirmed the company's efforts to achieve "overall diversity in our casting," "full agreement that the historical contributions of people of color have long been distorted or ignored, and "hope that in our own way we can be part of the solution" along with an insistence that "Costanzo was one of only two singers we found to have the skills and ability to perform the role of Akhnaten in this case.")

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LA Opera's Akhnaten runs for five more performances through November 27 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Full-price tickets on the LA Opera web site; discount tickets for some performances available on Goldstar.